Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler

Readers (all seven of you) beware: This synopsis may contain spoilers:

The Wrestler is a hard movie to watch. A patina of doom and desperation shellacs every scene in this story about washed out, sad eyed professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

This is no uplifting Rocky-like tale. Nor does it follow the rise-fall-redemption template of the recent spate of musician biopics. The Wrestler is about a man who’s hit bottom only to discover there’s nowhere else to go but down. Watching that negative trajectory play out on screen is an exceedingly uncomfortable experience.

Part of that discomfort stems from Darren Aronofsky’s directing style. Several scenes resemble a documentary with a hand-held camera shakily following a shambling Mickey Rourke around the New Jersey hinterlands as he readies himself for a match. The bouts are held not in the packed arenas of The Ram’s 1980s heyday, but in the bingo halls and high school gyms of the low-paying indie circuit.

The wrestling action is intimately filmed; the camera tightens around the two performers as they wince from the real pain of pulled punches and chairs to the head. An ECW-style hardcore match is especially difficult to watch. Here, Aronofsky unflinchingly shoots The Ram and his opponent brutalizing each other with lamps, thumbtacks and barbed wire. He then shows us the cringe-inducing backstage aftermath of medics removing glass shards from the combatants’ scarred, blood-covered bodies. The latter is something you will not see during the average episode of Monday Night Raw.

What’s especially sad is that The Ram takes these beatings for essentially chump change, and must rely on a concoction of pain medications to push him to his next miniscule payday. Memories of past glories keep him going, as does the reverence of younger wrestlers and the adoration from the rabidly vocal group of fans who attend his small-scale shows. Ultimately, however, he keeps wrestling because there’s nothing else he knows how to do.

The punishment Aronofsky heaps upon The Ram is not just physical. The former star lives at the poverty level in a trailer pathetically decorated with newspaper clippings of his heroic past. His relationships with other people, meanwhile, are tangential at best:

During the week he works at a grocery store, where his mean-spirited dick of a boss humiliates him with cheap jokes. He spends much of his money on a hot-but-aging stripper, played by the still very gorgeous Marisa Tomei. Nor does he have a relationship with his teenage daughter, whom he deserted long ago. All of this adds up to a lonely, beaten-down existence with little hope for something better.

This sad circumstance is wholly embodied by Mickey Rourke, whose own demons have been well-publicized in the months leading up to “The Wrestler’s” release. Simply put, this movie wouldn’t work without Rourke’s pained presence. His straggly, peroxide-blond hair and craggy moonscape of a face are disturbing wonders to behold. Physical and psychic pain surround him like some weird dark aura. It is hard to separate the character from the man, a fact that only strengthens the gravity of Rourke’s performance.

Rourke’s work makes it easier to overlook the cliché-ridden elements of the narrative: The machinations of The Ram’s attempt and ultimate failure to reconnect with his long-lost daughter, for example, are trite and predictable. Tomei is solid as the stripper-mom with a heart of gold, but there’s very little chemistry between her and Rourke, making her actions toward the end of the movie rather unbelievable.

All that said it is morbidly fascinating to watch Rourke’s take on a man of a bygone decade where people listened to Ratt without irony and considered pro wrestling a legitimate sport.

I also admire Aronofsky for not bailing viewers out with an easy-to-digest message or feel-good resolution. His grim vision scarcely gives viewers a chance to breathe. While this kind of brooding meal may not be for everyone, those that can endure The Ram’s sad tale will have much to chew on afterwards.

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